We are in a period of prolonged soul-searching as to what it means to be British. Personally, I am not going to expend too many grey cells on the matter, at least until September 19th when there might still be a Britain. What is more worthwhile in this period of uncertainty is to ponder what it is to be English.
As is often the case the wonderful, witty and late lamented Ian Dury has something to say on the subject. England’s Glory, which appears as a bonus track on the deluxe version of his meisterwerk, New Boots and Panties, but was actually written while he was with Kilburn and the Highroads, is a tribute to what Dury characterises as Englishness. Perhaps, if we pick through the bones of the song – as we shall over the next few weeks – we might have a clearer idea of what it means to be English. But, then again, we might not but we will have some fun along the way.
The song is a list of characters, some real, some fictional, some historical, some from the world of entertainment, around a chorus pointing out that each in their own way contributed to what Dury calls England’s glory.
The first couplet goes like this, “Frankie Howerd, Noel Coward and garden gnomes/ Frankie Vaughan, Kenneth Horne, Sherlock Holmes”
Frankie Howerd was a British comedian in his pomp (and Pompeii) in the 1950s to 70s. He was famous for innuendo and double entendres and seemingly off script, direct addresses to camera and phrases like “Titter ye not” and “Oooh, no missus”. A sense of humour, wordplay and delight in innuendo, perhaps.
Noel Coward was a playwright, composer of whimsical songs and a director, known for his wit, flamboyance and for being the epitome of camp. A sense of style and knowingness, perhaps.
Garden gnomes are those hideous, generally plastic, ornaments people of a certain age insist in putting in their gardens. I always cheer when I hear one has been stolen in the neighbourhood. The Chelsea Flower show caused controversy last year by allowing them onto their exhibits. A love of the naff, perhaps.
Frankie Vaughan was a popular singer in the late 1940s and 50s releasing some 80 singles. He was a sort of Sinatra manqué. Pretentions to greatness but never quite getting there, perhaps.
Kenneth Horne was a radio comedian, popular in the 1940s and 1950s. His shows, Much Binding in the Marsh, Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne were must listen to shows and had a phenomenal cast including Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee, amongst others. For their time they were quite near the knuckle in terms of their humour and risqué innuendo. Again suggestions of the saucy postcard sense of humour.
Sherlock Holmes was Conan Doyle’s master creation and was the English sleuth par excellence. A cocaine user and fiddler, Sherlock used his phenomenal grey cells to solve crimes which baffled the old bill using his powers of observation and deduction. Perhaps we are cold, calculating and analytical.
To be continued…